WASHINGTON — An apparent U.S. missile strike on a compound in northwestern Pakistan killed six people early Monday, including a man believed to be a top al-Qaida operative and key figure in the terrorist group's production of chemical weapons and conventional explosives, U.S. and Pakistani sources said.
The death of Abu Khabab al-Masri, if confirmed, would be the most significant blow against al-Qaida's leadership in at least six months. The Egyptian-born chemical engineer is believed to have trained a generation of al-Qaida fighters in bomb-making, and he once spearheaded the group's efforts to make biological and chemical weapons.
The strike coincided with a visit to Washington by Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, whose government has complained repeatedly to the Bush administration about unilateral U.S. strikes against suspected terrorist bases in Pakistan's tribal belt.
The pre-dawn attack occurred on the grounds of a former religious school near Azam Warsak, a village in the autonomous province of South Waziristan less than three miles from the Afghanistan border. Local residents reported hearing the sound of a drone aircraft in the area shortly before the attack, followed by explosions, the Reuters news agency reported. Local officials reported six killed, including four Egyptian nationals and two Pakistanis.
Two local Taliban sources contacted in South Waziristan confirmed that a top al-Qaida leader was killed in the attack, and said the man was believed to be al-Masri. U.S. officials also cited early indications that Masri was among the victims, although they were still awaiting confirmation. Masri has been reported in the past to have been killed and then shown up alive.
"There is a sense that he may no longer be with us," said one senior U.S. official familiar with intelligence reports about the strike. "If the reports are true, it would be a significant victory."
The official said Masri, a top aide to No. 2 al-Qaida commander Ayman al-Zawahiri, had run explosives-training camps in Afghanistan before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and had more recently conducted training for al-Qaida recruits in bases along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Masri, 54, whose given name was Midhat Mursi, had also been in charge of al-Qaida's rudimentary biological and chemical weapons programs before being driven from Afghanistan in 2001.
Although CIA officials declined to comment on the attack, CIA-operated Predator drones are known to have carried out several successful missile strikes on al-Qaida and Taliban leaders inside Pakistan's autonomous tribal region this year, including a January attack that killed Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al-Qaida commander.
The incident threatened to overshadow Gillani's first trip to the United States as Pakistan's prime minister, a visit in which both Gillani and President Bush sought to play down growing tensions between the two nations. During meetings between the two leaders, Gillani secured a pledge from Bush to respect Pakistan's sovereignty, in exchange for promises from Islamabad to increase efforts against insurgents.
Bush and Gillani took to the South Lawn of the White House for brief and upbeat remarks on their talks, which focused on efforts to clamp down on al-Qaida and Taliban extremists who have found haven in Pakistan's largely ungoverned northwest tribal areas.
"This is our own war," Gillani said. "This is a war which is against Pakistan."
Without mentioning the strike, Bush said his administration "supports the sovereignty of Pakistan," an apparent reference to public opposition in Pakistan to U.S. military activity there. He also said Gillani had made a "strong commitment" to making sure that the border with Afghanistan "is secure as best as possible."
"We are committed to fight against those extremists and terrorists who are destroying and making the world not safe," Gillani said, adding that there are "a few militants ... who are disturbing this peace."
Later, in an interview with CNN, Gillani was asked whether the missile strike was a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. "Certainly," he said, adding, "There should be more cooperation on the intelligence side, so that when there is a credible and actionable information given to us, we will hit ourselves."
The trip comes amid growing U.S. concern about Pakistan's inability to contain extremists in its tribal areas, where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding, and which have become a staging ground for attacks in Afghanistan by Taliban militiamen.
The new coalition government in Islamabad has emphasized negotiations with militants and has characterized military action as a last resort. Pakistan, which has received more than $10 billion in U.S. aid since 2001, has resisted suggestions that troops from the United States or other countries be allowed into the region.
The White House announced it was providing an additional $115 million in food aid for Pakistan, where the impoverished population is struggling with skyrocketing food prices.